Welcome to a Special Edition Series with the Chief!
Chief Master Sergeant Damian Orslene, or the “Chief” as his friends know him, is training for the 2012 Warrior Games, which will take place April 30 – May 3. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Warrior Games, they are a Department of Defense (DOD) and U.S. Paralympics sponsored event that consists of Olympic-style competition for wounded veterans and service members. The Chief will be blogging about his training, challenges he faces, and some of the realities of training for an elite event as a wounded veteran.
Before we start with the special series, below is a brief Q&A with the Chief. This will give you a glimpse into not only why the Chief is a fierce competitor, but also allow you to understand the role that athletics, the military, and his family have played in his life, and the incredible sacrifices he has made for our freedom.
Chief, you have been an athlete your entire life, how has your training changed since you sustained multiple injuries in Iraq?
My bride and I were competitive age group Triathletes. We competed all over the UK, and the US and were dedicated 5 and 10K runners. The injuries from Iraq changed all that forever. But that’s ok. It just required some refocusing. I have multiple injuries to my back, as well as to my hips, a new right hip, and even though we’ve extensively operated on my right shoulder it will never be the same again. Mentally dealing with the changes was probably the hardest part, then once I accepted that I would never run again, and never ride an upright two wheel bike again, things turned around for me rather quickly. In the past, my weakest event in the Tri was my swim, I’m not really built for it – I sink! So, I just powered through it, to get to the other events. Suddenly, swimming was not only my therapy but something I was pretty good at. I dedicated all of 2009 to swimming and in 2010 made the inaugural Air Force Wounded Warrior Team as a swimmer. In 2011, I received a Bronze Medal at the Warrior Games in Swimming! It was amazing!
What were some of the toughest challenges you faced after coming home from Iraq?
There are three pieces to that puzzle.
First, No one goes through, especially after three deployments, what we went through, and comes home the same person; and I wasn’t. I wasn’t the same person, but yet I expected everyone around me to accept that and just love me no matter what. That wasn’t fair to them. My bride had to fall in love with me all over again, we had to start all over and rebuild our family, and that wasn’t easy.
Especially when you throw in the second piece and that is I was in constant pain. Never ending…nonstop, no matter how much medicine I took…pain. Most days I just suffered. There were times I didn’t think I could take another minute of it. Those were dark days. And then you are faced with your biggest challenge you have ever been faced with in your entire life – Number Three: Accepting the new you. You wake up one morning and you look in the mirror and you say “ok”. You decide to quit fighting yourself and finally give in and accept a few of the new features of the new you: your new bionic arm or leg, or hip or the diminished memory from your TBI. This might happen right away, or if you’re stubborn like me, it might take you a couple years before you finally accept this is who you are, and that’s just fine. Life is the ultimate marathon, it takes a little while. It took me a little while to get to where I am today, but the point is, I made it here!
Do you think having athletic goals has allowed you to push beyond the rehabilitation expectations post-injuries?
Absolutely. I remember sitting in the Doctor’s office and she said Chief, your right hip is a total mess, your right shoulder is a total mess, you have three blown vertebrae, your right side of your hip has been twisted forward, while your left side of your hip has been twisted back. Then she started telling me all the things I’d probably never be able to do again. That’s when I started forming my goals, THAT DAY! I was going to prove her wrong. And I have on many things. I haven’t been able to run yet…YET! The only reason I’m still in Physical Therapy is because of my personal high standards and athletic goals. I’ve already exceeded all normal patient standards. On my chart it says, Patient Goal: Gold Medal at Warrior Games! So they keep extending my visits and keep pushing me hard towards my goals!
You were chosen to represent the United States Air Force in the 2010 and 2011 Warrior Games, and have competed with the Swim, Basketball and Seated Volleyball Teams. What events will you be competing in this year and has your training changed from previous years?
I have done a complete makeover for this year. The past two years I was a swimmer, 50M Free, 100M Free, 50M Backstroke and 200M Relay; with last year winning a Bronze medal in that amazing pool at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs! But it was really hard for me to dedicate 9 months out of the year to swim those events and compete against 20 year old Navy Seals and Recon Marine swimmers who kicked my 46 year old ass. So I knew it was time for a change.
I had been really resistant to trying out a recumbent bike because I didn’t want to give up on the idea of ever riding a normal bike again. Because of my hips being twisted, and my back being hurt, I can’t sit on a normal saddle for more than a few minutes without excruciating pain. But, last year Coach Cami asked me to fill in as an alternate Recumbent Bike Rider, and if you haven’t met her yet, there is no way you can ever say no to Coach Cami, so I tried the Recumbent and fell madly in love with that bike. I rode it for 30 minutes the first day and got up and felt no pain and knew it was time to make a move. Last year I made the Track and Field team as a Discus thrower, but had to bail out because it was hurting my shoulder and I needed to focus on swimming. So this year I am giving Recumbent Bike and Discus my full attention. Those two sports are vastly different from swimming and I’ve found they compliment each other very well.
What role has your family played in your rehabilitation?
I would not be who I am, or where I am in life if it weren’t for the love and support of my family, especially my Bride. Lori has been the greatest supporter and the real Hero of this story. She had a stranger come home from Iraq, who was injured and broken, suffering, in pain, with TBI and PTSD, night mares, flashbacks, whiteouts, day mares, the whole nine yards, and she just kept her arms wrapped around me tight. No matter how bad it got, she never let go. She has been completely self-less. Most people see me when I’m out and about, already up and dressed and on the field, but they don’t see what all Lori had to go through that morning to get me there. Every time I started to give up she was right there beside me holding my hand. Every time I thought I can’t do this anymore, she was right there.
Every time I began to wonder if it was worth all this pain, she was right there to remind me, that I was not the only one in this fight. That this was not my rehabilitation, but OURS. And WE were going to get better. And WE were going to beat this thing, and WE weren’t going to stop until we reached our goal and WE are going to run someday… my bride and I together. In truth, my injury affected both of us so much that it became our injury. That is how we are attacking it…together.
Chief, you have been going through this for several years now and subsequently have learned quite a few lessons which we look forward to reading about, but what ONE thing did you learn the most about you?
That’s a tough one, because I’m hard headed and learned so many things the hard way. But, each of us has to have our “Moment”. Our darkest of darks moment. If you’ve read my testimony you know about mine, I won’t rehash it here. What we learn in that moment, is the ONE thing. What I learned in mine was I’d rather live than die and I NEEDED to be an athlete again. I love standing on that block in the Olympic Training Center pool, with 300 people screaming, staring down into the same water that Michael Phelps stares into, waiting for that buzzer…waiting for that moment…and when it goes off, and your muscles coil and you fire yourself off across that Olympic blue, hanging for a split second weightless on air…in that moment…I feel like an athlete again. Those moments are magical, and are worth all the long training sessions, protein drinks, and ice packed knees…for that ONE moment. That’s what I learned about me.